Social and civil – Public Strategist reaches 500

At the time this post was written, the blog was pseudonymous, for the reasons set out here. Three years later, I dropped the pseudonymity for reasons  I explained at that time.


If a major objective of this blog were to be anonymous, it would have failed catastrophically. The power of google is such that searching on my name now gives this blog as the first result, despite the fact that my name does not appear anywhere in it. I doubt that it would take a moderately industrious and moderately web savvy individual more than a few minutes to make the connection even if they didn’t have a name to start with. Even my mother found her way here (hello!) without my ever having hinted that there was a blog to look for (for the avoidance of doubt, she did know my name to start with).

From time to time I toy with dropping this increasingly threadbare pseudonymity. Each time – including this time – I have decided not to, precisely because this blog is pseudonymous rather than anonymous. Over time, I have planted increasingly obvious clues around the web, which is no doubt one reason why google can pull off its party trick, but I have drawn the line at how this blog identifies itself.

The basic reason remains the one I started with several years ago:

Public Strategist is pseudonymous not to hide behind a cloak of anonymity but to underline a distinction between an individual and an institution.

That distinction is important to me because I am a civil servant, and there is a responsibility which goes with that to be impartial, to avoid politically controversial issues, and not to abuse the confidence of those I work with. I deal with that by writing only rarely directly about the matters which occupy my working day, and when I do I wrap them in such obfuscation that even I find it hard to disentangle. I have no intention of changing that.

So why, you might wonder, do I bother mentioning it all? There are two reasons. One is that this is the 500th post on this blog, which feels like quite a milestone and encourages a bit of introspection.

The second, and less felicitous, reason is that that milestone coincides with attacks by the tabloid press on Sarah Baskerville for her personal online activities. I wrote a piece on that as the storm broke and many others have come to her defence. I don’t want to repeat or add to that directly. But it is worth thinking about the general question of where the lines should be drawn, so that bloggers, tweeters and, critically, their managers know where they stand

That of course presupposes that there is a line.  I think there should be no doubt that there is one – or rather that there are two. That does not mean that in practice they are either clearly visible or sharply focused. It does mean though that the interesting question is where they are to be drawn. The core issues are organisational loyalty and political impartiality and the real questions are whether anybody should feel free to use social media to comment on and criticise their employing organisation and whether the answer to that should be different for people working for elected politicians. There is nothing new about any of that: the thing which is new is the context in which those judgements are made.

Users of social media are in a difficult middle ground in which social norms have not yet fully formed. Interactions are often conversational and immediate, informal and spontaneous. But they are also recorded, broadcast and archived and can be received far away in time, space and – critically – context from the place where they were transmitted. For twitter in particular, there is a very strange collision of contexts. It is like being in the pub with some friends, being at speakers’ corner shouting at (and being heckled by) random passers by, being on the Today programme, being on Big Brother, and throwing a message in a bottle out to sea – all at once. I am no better placed to delineate that frontier than anybody else, though there are some clear principles which take us quite a long way.

The central one is set out in the Civil Service Code, which as of last week has a statutory underpinning in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The section on political impartiality states:

14. You must:

  • serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are;
  • act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government; and
  • comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities.

What restrictions on political activities might those be? There’s a detailed answer in the Civil Service Management Code (section 4.4 if you are curious), which defines two relevant variables: national or local and politically restricted or not. Essentially, more senior people are ‘politically restricted’ and may not take part in national political activities and need permission for local political activities. Notionally there are ‘politically free’ people who can do anything, but I suspect that most of the jobs in that category have been outsourced for years. In between there is a large group who are neither of the first two, but for whom there doesn’t seem to be a name. They need permission for either national or local activities, though there is provision for block exemptions.

And what are the political activities which might be restricted? The relevant bit in this context is in para 4.4.1:

Speaking in public on matters of national [or local as appropriate] political controversy; expressing views on such matters in letters to the Press, or in books, articles or leaflets.

All that provides the appearance of clarity, but not necessarily the precision one might hope for, as is often the way with guidance. For a start the activities described in 4.4.1 have a slightly faded air to them. The general point is, however clear: civil servants do have to accept limitations on their political speech which do not apply to others.  So when Adrian Short tweets that ‘In short, political neutrality isn’t the same as clerical celibacy’ I think he is wrong: for at least some of us, that is pretty much exactly what it is.

But even if we were to sweep all that aside, would that imply that there were no limits? I don’t think so  In a comment on my earlier post, Ian says that, ‘This case has great similarities with Civil Serf in DWP case’.  I don’t think that’s right at all. On the contrary, Civil Serf’s case shows some very important differences from Sarah Baskerville. She was a civil servant in DWP who wrote an anonymous blog about her work, including passages commenting directly on both policies and ministers. She got some critical press coverage early in 2008, and her blog was completely and rapidly vanished. As I said when reflecting on her case at the time:

I think there are some pretty clear rules of the game here, most of which are not specific to the public sector – though the iron law applies, here as elsewhere, that something happening in the public sector is intrinsically more newsworthy than the same thing happening in the private sector.

There is an entirely reasonable expectation of confidence about the internal operations of the organisation.  Not all of them, not about everything, but any organisation needs some shared assumptions and expectations about what is internal and what can be shared externally. The argument that more should be shared externally doesn’t change that: the question of degree is not the same as the question of principle. We wouldn’t expect a manufacturing company to be happy to cede decision making on the timing of new product announcements to the whims of bloggers within the company, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect ministers to be any more tolerant of civil servants opinionating about future policy announcements.  For civil servants, particularly those working directly with or close to ministers, an acceptance of constraints on what would otherwise be perfectly legitimate political activities is a basic part of the deal.  Anybody who doesn’t like that is free to follow Clare Short’s example and switch trades.

What Sarah has demonstrated – as have many public sector bloggers – is that it is possible to be open, human, informed and informative while at the same time respecting both organisational confidence and the particular constraints of being part of a non-political public service. On the evidence I have (admittedly very incomplete, particularly for Civil Serf), Sarah’s activities were proper, in a way Civil Serf’s simply were not. I think that that is broadly encouraging (though some think I am foolishly optimistic): there are boundaries, but they do not make a straitjacket and there is no shortage of good things we can do within them. Not everything will be easy, not every choice will be clear, but there is scope to apply passion pace and pride here – and professionalism too.

Comments

  1. Even my mother found her way here (hello!) without my ever having hinted that there was a blog to look for (for the avoidance of doubt, she did know my name to start with).

    To be fair, Mr Strategist, your mother is one of the few people who could spell your name reliably at the first attempt. I’ve always considered that something of a ‘hiding in plain sight’ strategy. :)

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